Finding a pair of comfortable yet sexy heels can be a challenge for any woman. Imagine trying to find a pair of sassy platform sling-backs for a 250-pound, size 15-foot man.
Bernie Fatla, owner of a Verona-based company, has the answer.
His business, Le Dame Footwear, sells shoes ranging from ballet flats to 4-inch heels to thigh-high boots for men who are transgender or dress in women's clothes.
"It's the most fun I've ever had in my entire life," said Fatla, a heterosexual, married, suburban businessman who worked for more than 26 years as a buyer and merchandise manager for Famous Footwear. "I think (the business) is absolutely right for the time."
Le Dame primarily ships wholesale orders to retail and online stores across the country. The idea was born in 2006 after Fatla, who had been laid off years earlier, read a New York Times article that described the problems of drags queens searching for comfortable, sexy shoes.
"I told my wife there's got to be a business here," he said.
And there was. But before launching the line, Fatla and his wife, Sharon, did their homework, setting up booths with shoe samples at cross-dressing conventions, attending drag shows and cold calling stores and clubs to confirm there was a market and to learn what cross-dressing men were looking for in a pump.
He learned there was an untapped market and that drag queens were forced to buy women's shoes that were often too ill-fitting to wear for more than a couple hours.
"It can be really, really hard to find professional shoes," said Denise Leclair, executive director of the International Foundation for Gender Education, who said she's met Fatla at a conference where she told him "make some shoes I can wear to the office."
Fatla said he can't remember ever being to a drag show before starting Le Dame, but said the openness of the transgender and cross-dressing community has meant he and his wife always feel comfortable at the events.
"There are bigger issues in the world to worry about than a boy in a 4-inch pump," he said.
Fatla runs the business out of his Verona home where he organizes orders for stores and organizations and markets the shoes. Now that the line is carried in a Madison boutique, he rarely sees clients for fittings as he used to when the company was starting out.
He started shipping footwear in November 2007, and since then Le Dame shoes have been featured on RuPaul's Drag Race reality TV show on Logo TV and Fatla has provided shoes for another reality show appearing on Logo later this month. In addition, Le Dame has been nominated for the second year for an erotic retail industry award in the best accessory category.
"We more than doubled the business in 2009," Fatla said, although he declined to give his annual revenue. "This year, it is at even a better pace."
Le Dame shoes aren't just bigger and wider women's shoes — they are constructed with subtle differences that make them appropriate for male feet.
"Obviously my girls have bigger hands, so we do little touches to make sure the buckles are a little bit bigger," Fatla said. "They're structurally built to fit a man's foot."
The shoes have been well received among groups like the Chicago Gender Society, where Fatla occasionally holds a "fashion show for shoes" during monthly meetings.
"Bernie's just been great about providing that type of product for us," said Jacquiline Perry, the society's president.
"The concept was just on the money," agrees Artie Farrulla, a longtime friend of Bernie and Sharon Fatla, who runs the Total Image hair salon and boutique on Madison's West Side where he sells Le Dame shoes and offers makeovers to men.
Rori Scheffler, owner of Transformations in Arlington Heights outside of Chicago, carries the Le Dame shoe line in addition to wigs, makeup and undergarments for women and transgender men.
"(The shoes) really cross a lot of boundaries and people are happy," Scheffler said.
An unexpected market for Le Dame has been men participating in the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes fundraisers that have taken place throughout the United States and Canada — including Madison. The event features men walking in women's shoes to raise money for programs that work to prevent rape, sexual assault and gender violence.
Fatla's even developed a shoe especially for the event — the Natalie — a red pump that he discounts for walkers.
At least 13 walks occurred in June and more than 180 walks have happened so far this year — including one in Madison in May.